Vanessa Hall-Harper: Breaking chains in North Tulsa

by Contributing Writer Kristi (Orisabiyi) Williams

District 1 City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper is a councilor who is loved by her community and people from afar. She has become known nationally as the “Dollar Store Lady” and “Unbought and Bossed.” “Unbought and Unbossed” was the mantra that she used throughout her campaign that she borrowed from her shero Shirley Chisholm. Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman to run for President of the United States. Before winning the District 1 City Council seat, she was a community activist who led North Tulsa clean-up campaigns and spearheaded the rebuilding of B.C. Franklin Park after the recreation center was demolished in 2014.

Vanessa Hall-Harper also has her critics. I asked her once, “What do you say to those who believe that you promote disharmony and disruption rather than [trying to] work together with others?” She said, “I’m not going to go along to get along for the sake of “harmony!” Agitate, Agitate, Agitate! Without struggle, there can be no progress!” Councilor Hall-Harper’s personal philosophy is also rooted in another famous quote from Dr. Cornel West, a philosopher and activist from Tulsa: “If your success is defined as being well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference, then we don’t want successful leaders. We want great leaders who love the people enough and respect the people enough to be unbought, unbound, unafraid, and unintimidated to tell the truth.” 

Vanessa wanted African Americans throughout Tulsa to have representation at City Hall. Hispanics, Native Americans, and women all had had commissions within the City of Tulsa’s government for over 45 years where they were able to make recommendations to the Mayor directly on policy that uniquely affects them. African Americans did not have that type of representation at City Hall. Therefore, Hall-Harper fought to establish the Greater Tulsa African American Affairs Commission. 

Here are some of her other accomplishments:

  • Co-founded the Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce
  • Created the Power Group (an economic investment arm within the Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce) where citizens can give monetarily into the fund for future economic development in North Tulsa
  • Established the Black Contractor Association
  • Led successful campaigns for a moratorium on discount dollar stores and oversaw the implementation of a Healthy Neighborhoods Overlay to ensure no more dollar stores could exist within District 1
  • Helped to create the District 1 Housing Committee
  • Helped facilitate bringing a grocery store to North Peoria (the groundbreaking is expected in April 2020); she has helped in facilitating bid packages for subcontractors for the long-awaited grocery store, which was released March 2, 2020.
  • Secured public hearings to tackle the issue of use-of-force by law enforcement and racial profiling against African American communities in the city
  • Asked for the Mass Graves Oversight Committee to be established to ensure that there are community stakeholders actively involved in the process 
  • Pushed for an executive order mandating that all City of Tulsa contracts have a 10% utilization requirement for small businesses and ensured that the Small Business Enterprise (SBE) Oversight Committee reflects diversity

One of her major accomplishments to date has been Tulsa’s first Expungement Expo. An expungement expo is an event that consists of attorneys, court clerks, and community partners assisting community members with expunging their criminal records free of charge. Many citizens in Tulsa have criminal records, such as non-violent offenses, unpaid tickets, and fines. Having that on your record hinders one’s ability to secure housing, jobs that pay a living wage, and accessing higher education opportunities. An expungement would seal those records, making them unavailable through the state and federal repositories. Hiring an attorney for an expungement is a costly expense that most just simply cannot afford. That was a serious concern for the District 1 City Councilor because she is continuously trying to find ways to improve the quality of life for the residents of her district. Councilor Hall-Harper heard of the expungement expo concept through ones that were done in Cook County in Chicago and in Dallas, Texas. Vanessa reached out to the women who had created those to learn best practices on how to successfully put one together. In the spring of 2018, Hall-Harper, along with community partners, birthed Tulsa’s first Expungement Expo, which had 436 attendees. The following fall was the second Expungement Expo with 203 attendees. In the fall of 2019, the third Expungement Expo was held with 165 attendees. 

Here is the breakdown of the high points of the expos from Attorney Beverly Atteberry’s law office:

Spring 2018 Expungement

  • 25 of the 991c cases that were completed were all granted successfully
  • 84 clients needed a Section 18 expungement (9 we are currently waiting on, 70 were granted, 5 were denied)
  • 4 clients we are still currently working with; These are clients that have recently contacted us to say that they have paid off the court costs, etc.

Fall 2018 Expungement

  • 77 clients needed a Section 18 expungement (2 we are currently waiting on and 63 were granted)
  • 24 clients needed 991c expungements (clients had more than one case); ALL 991c cases that were completed were all granted successfully)

November 2019 Expungement

  • 103 are open and moving forward

There will be another Expungement Expo coming soon. Councilor Hall-Harper is going to start having the Expungement Expo quarterly to ensure that these barriers no longer exist for citizens in order to give them a pathway to having a better quality of life. 

Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper is doing an amazing job and to stop her now would halt the growth of District 1. Every month, she has a town hall at the Rudisill Library to keep the community informed and engaged. When she is approached by people outside of her community for projects and proposals, they have to pitch it at her town hall to the residents of District 1. She truly seeks their input before any actions are taken. She is the only city councilor who refuses to take money from organizations. As her Campaign Manager, I would often say, “We need to consider some organizations to help our campaign financially.” She would respond, “When you take money from organizations, they expect favors. My community is the only people I serve so that is who will fund our campaign.” While anyone has the right to run for office, it boggles my mind why anyone would run against the only black woman on Tulsa’s City Council. Hall-Harper is breaking barriers, challenging the status quo, organizing citizens, and energizing the community in a way no one has before. 

Photo credit: Kristi (Orisabiyi) Williams